Sunday, December 10, 2006

Bouchee a la reine

Bouchée à la reine, sometimes called vol-au-vent*, was my first introduction to French food. This was a menu staple at an eccentric bistrot in my hometown, and the first time I ordered it I knew it was something special. A delicate puff pastry bowl filled with a creamy sauce and chunks of chicken and mushroom, a perfect balance of beauty and substance: it was love at first sight.

This made me all the more excited when I visited Strasbourg, since I would get to experience authentic bouchée à la reine, it being an Alsacian specialty. During this first visit I was relying once again on R for restaurants and sightseeing. R knows Strasbourg very well, and all the pubs and doner kebab shops even better, but restaurants not so much. So for my first ever bouchée à la reine in France, he took me to a cheesy chain, where I again got the chicken version. I was happy, however, and it was much better than back home. The relationship had survived the Atlantic!

Alas, the 2nd time I had bouchée à la reine in France, there started to be difficulties. R had picked one up for me from a takeaway bouchée à la reine place (only in Strasbourg!) as a surprise. Warning bells should've sounded, especially given the greenish hue to the sauce. Can you guess what's coming? My first case of food poisoning. After this I swore off bouchée à la reine forever.


We happened to be visiting R's parents during my birthday. His mom knew that I loved bouchée à la reine, and so she decided to surprise me by making it.

R's mom is an awesome cook. She is a perfectionist in the kitchen and searches out the best quality ingredients. She buys her meat from a neighboring farmer: when a cow is ready to be killed and the farmer has enough buyers, the freezer out in the garage will be filled with kilos of meat. Every visit with his parents is a treat, not only because they are lovely people, but also because we are spoiled rotten with the awesome meals. I will never forget the best Thanksgiving meal I ever had, thanks to her. We had emailed for a few weeks about the menu and ingredients. When it came to stuffing I foolishly offered to bring a box of Stovetop with me. Ooh na na. This was not what Madame R had in mind. Instead she made real stuffing: a pork, veal and chestnut mix truly stuffed in the turkey. And old-fashioned whipped potatoes with a real rice grinder! And did I mention the magnum of a 1960s Bordeaux to accompany all this? Yeah. The best Thanksgiving dinner ever. I did help out - I made the pumpkin pie. Which was a total flop. An acquired taste, I suppose.

So. I've now established that R's mom is amazing in the kitchen and only uses and prepares the best. Late in the afternoon I come upon her violently peeling and separating some kind of organ. I ask what she's doing and if she needs any help. She replies that she is just preparing the ris de veau for the bouchée à la reine. Pardon?

"I thought bouchée à la reine was made with chicken," I reply.

R's mom shakes her head vigorously: "Only the cheap versions."

Hmm. So what is this ris de veau thing anyways? I ask R's mom and she gestures towards her stomach. I'm starting to get a sinking feeling.

I hastily look it up in the English-French dictionary, where it reads "Calf's Sweetbread." Great. What does that mean? "It sounds innocuous," I think to myself hopefully.

Using their dial up connection I do a quick google search, where I learn that it means...pancreas and thymus.

The relationship is doomed.

At dinner, I try to hide my discomfort, either swallowing the bits whole or sneaking them onto R's plate. And I've stuck with the "cheap" version of bouchée à la reine ever since.

*These two terms are sometimes listed interchangeably on menus. I don't know the exact difference between them, but I think vol-au-vent refers to the puff pastry bowl/presentation itself while bouchée à la reine refers to the entire dish/specific recipe for this Alsacian specialty. Please correct me if I'm wrong. Also, a literal translation would be "Queen's mouthful."

Photo lifted from Swee San's gorgeous Flickr account:
And do check out her equally gorgeous blog, A Self-proclaimed Foodaholic.


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